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In the world of beer the Devil has all the best ales

In Leuven, pursuit of the 'perfect Duvel' is taken quite seriously

The Dean of the Faculty steered me to the window and gestured proudly toward the square outside, dating from the late Middle Ages and lined with handsomely gabled and gilded buildings.

"Once, those were houses - today, every one is a beer café. In the evenings, that is the greatest concentration of student life you would see anywhere," he said.

The US has Yale and Harvard, England has Oxford and Cambridge. The city most often known (if at all) to English speakers by the French name Louvain, but itself more widely using the Flemish description Leuven, is Belgium's equivalent.

The Catholic University of Leuven was founded in 1425, and its alumni have ranged from Erasmus and Mercator to many Belgian brewers. Leuven itself is a beer-making city, in establishments ranging from Artois/Interbrew to the Domus brew-pub.

I am Patron of the Oxford University Beer Appreciation Society and have spoken at the Cambridge Union. However, only at Leuven did a voice of authority volunteer pride in the beery quality of his students' life. I know several people who were educated at Leuven, and they all remember it with warmth.

The Dean, whose faculty embraces Agricultural and Applied Biological Sciences, made his very Belgian gesture at the reception to celebrate a doctorate. At the mid-morning reception, the beers served were the classic golden strong ale Duvel, and a dark, abbey-style brew from the range made for the Benedictine brothers of Maredsous. Both beers are produced by the Moortgat family brewery, between Brussels and Antwerp.

These perilously potent specialities were dispensed by waiters. A platter of salty, spicy, thirst-making canapés would be proffered, followed by a tray of foaming glasses. I seemed constantly to have in my hand a fresh glass.

Professors in disciplines relating to brewing had come to serve on the jury.

How could I be so insouciant? Well, you see, the conversation was so good. Professors in disciplines relating to brewing had come to serve on the jury. Although the university language is Flemish, some of the examination was in French and English.

The candidate, Hedwig Neven, had to defend his findings in all three languages.

In just an hour or two, I learned much. Unfortunately most of this new found erudition rested briefly before being washed away by Duvel, the name of which derives from Devil.

Candidate Neven's paper was on the evolution of aromatic elements in beer during bottle-conditioning. From his pulpit-like position, phrases like esterase activity, diethyl pyrocarbonate and endoplasmatic reticulum rained down upon an audience of family, friends and brewers.

He seemed to be arguing that beer could benefit from being pasteurised for stability, before being bottle-matured. He carried out his research at the university's Centre for Malting and Brewing and at the Moortgat brewery.

Hedwig Neven is now a doctor, but I am not sure he will persuade Moortgat, or any similar Belgian brewery, to install pasteurising equipment.

Moortgat's production processes are already complex, especially in the case of Duvel. This potion begins with very pale malts, in an infusion mash with an original gravity of 1056.

It is hopped with Saaz and Styrian Goldings. Dextrose is added before primary fermentation to boost alcohol and further attenuation. This takes the original gravity to 1066.

The strain of yeast used derives from a culture taken from a bottle-conditioned McEwan's Scotch Ale between the two world wars.

The strain of yeast used derives from a culture taken from a bottle-conditioned McEwan's Scotch Ale between the two world wars. This culture had between 10 and 20 strains, which were "taken apart" by the great Belgian brewing scientist Jean De Clerck (who himself studied at Leuven in the 1920 and was an Emeritus Professor there in the 1970s).

These strains were reduced to one, though in the early 1990s the brewery had two.

Primary fermentation is at between 60F and 82F, and the brew stays in the vessels for five or six days. It is then transferred to cold maturation vessels, for two to three days, during which the temperature is dropped to 30.2F.

It is then held for a minimum of three weeks' cold maturation before being dropped to 26.6F to complete precipitation and compacting of yeast.

After cold maturation, the brew is centrifuged and given a priming of dextrose and more yeast.

The original gravity has at this point been effectively boosted to the equivalent of 1073-4.

Many consumers like it with some bottle age.

The brew is then warm conditioned in the bottle for eight to 14 days at 71.6F, then stabilised in cold storage, at 39-41F, for two to three months before being released, at an alcohol content of 8.5 by volume. The beer may spend a further three to six months in the cellar of a cafe or pub, and its "best by" date (obligatory in Europe) extends to three years. Many consumers like it with some bottle age.

Duvel was first produced in 1970, and I first tasted it in the middle of that decade. I was astonished by its combination lager-like attenuation and its huge complexity of ale fruitiness and hop character. It will never again shock me as it did in that first encounter but, 20 years on, I still think it is one of the world's great beers.

On my recent visit to Belgium, I was offered three samples at the brewery. Two were of the same "vintage", 14 months old, one from another batch, with a mere two to three month's bottle age. Both had been stored at 39-41 F, in the dark.

I tasted them blindfold, as part of a panel including two Moortgat family members, and the people in charge of the brewhouse, fermentation, maturation, packaging, overall production and sales.

Each of the three beers seemed quite different to me: the first had dry, apple-brandy flavours, the second was sweeter and softer and the third with a rockier head and tannic fruitiness. I thought numbers one and three might be the same beer and two the odd man out.

The other panellists agreed that each had different characteristics. One brewer pointed out that, even within a case, bottles of Duvel would vary perhaps due to minute differences in air levels or evolution of fermentation.

However, several members found particular variance in number three: "Wet dog," announced one brewer. "Too sulphury," opined another. "Not enough alcohol in the aroma," pronounced a third. "A bit empty," I ventured, though overall I narrowly like it best.

So did five other panellists, mainly for its aromatic fruitiness.

"Still, it's not perfect," demurred the sales director.

"What makes a perfect Duvel?" I asked. "A foamy head is the first thing," asserted one panellist. "I look first for clarity and pale colour," argued another. "It should be more aromatic than even the finest Pilsner," said a third.

"Poire William, fruit, even vegetable, but not green or raw," added a colleague.

I have never been in a brewery where the "perfect" example of its beer was such a strongly felt notion.

Nor one where staff held such clear opinions and could articulate them and in such diversity at a moment's notice.

Each great brewing nation has its own way of loving beer, and the Belgians have a poetic passion for it.

And yes, Number Three, "Wet Dog" (which turned out to be the youngest) was the odd man out.

I got it wrong. I'll never get an honorary degree from Leuven now...

Published Online: APR 25, 2000
Published in Print: AUG 1, 1997
In: What's Brewing

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